Off the Shelf: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women

Earlier this year I met with a group of women who met to discuss where to take their careers next. The group specifically targeted women who had reached a certain age and were already successful in their careers. At the first meeting, I listened to the other women introduce themselves and thought, “These women are really successful – I’m not on the same level with them. Why am I even here?” It pressed all my impostor syndrome buttons.

At a later meeting, the topic of the impostor syndrome came up again, and one of the women recommended The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, which I read while on vacation. It made me more aware of impostor syndrome and sent me down a Google-rabbit hole of research. The more I read about this, the more I became convinced that everyone suffers from some form of this, although with different triggers.

From what I am reading and hearing, impostor syndrome emerges from the cognitive dissonance between how you have always perceived yourself and how others perceive you, specifically when they see you as “more advanced” than you see yourself. When it occurs, a little voice goes off in your head, telling you that you can’t succeed at whatever it is that you’re doing and, instead of telling the little voice to go to hell, you listen to it and then your lizard brain kicks in and you react in an inappropriate way.

You can see the manifestations of impostor syndrome around you: in the friend who receives a ridiculously overwhelming assignment and tries to do it all herself instead of asking for the necessary resources because she’s afraid people will think she’s incompetent if she can’t do it all. When a colleague dismisses well-earned praise because it makes her uncomfortable, instead of thanking you for it and discussing your feedback to learn from it. When your boss keeps pushing harder and harder for perfection on something that is good enough as it is because he is afraid others will find flaws that he overlooked and know he’s a fake. In your sister or your spouse, when they don’t pursue a job they’re perfectly qualified for because they doubt anyone will take them seriously unless they get more credentials, more experience, etc.

It’s an overwhelming feeling that you don’t measure up and that the moment you let down your guard or make a mistake, they’ll figure it out and everything will come crashing down on you.

Over the weekend, I watched a CSPAN Book TV (yes, I know, book geek) discussion with Garry Kasparov, best known as a chess champion, and now a thought leader on artificial intelligence. The discussion was ostensibly about his new book Deep Thinking but, of course, before we got there, we had to take a detour through chess. He said something that resonated with me (this is paraphrased):

Every game whether I won or lost was a chance to learn something new. When you lose, it brings you more valuable information.

When I won, I looked for my mistakes and tried to figure out what to do differently.

Now that’s a quote to put up on the wall in your office: When you lose, it brings you more valuable information.

It reminds me of the biggest mistake of my 31-year career that happened in the late ‘90s: I accidentally closed a store. Closed it, emptied it, laid off the staff, took down the signs, swept it clean (the mall manager was shocked, as was the department whose job it was to make losing decisions). It’s a long story but there it was: the worst possible mistake I could ever make, very public, clearly my fault. My life flashed before my eyes. And what happened? I didn’t get fired. I didn’t even get “written up.” I had some extra work to do, reopening the store. I learned a valuable management lesson and we identified several opportunities to bulletproof the process going forward. That store closed many years later and, until then, every time that I saw that store number or ran into the store manager at a conference, I cringed. I still cringe when I think about it. But I will bet that, aside from that manager – who was wonderfully kind about my blunder – no one else remembers or, if they do, they may not remember that I did it because they never mentioned it again. The world didn’t end.

Now, when something bad happens and my lizard brain starts running around screaming that failure is imminent and I need to panic NOW, I think of that store (and cringe again) and tell myself: this isn’t as bad as closing a store by mistake and I survived that – I’ll survive this, too, and then I’ll look for the lesson. I also share this story with employees who are overthinking their mistakes: the error is not in the mistake, it’s in what you refuse to learn from the mistake.

What do you do when your impostor syndrome kicks in?

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